One of Italy’s most accomplished novelists spins a wonderful story about an elderly illustrator and his four-year-old grandson
Domenico Starnone is one of those novelists who from page one invite us to expect catastrophe. The main character is vulnerable, physically and mentally; a situation develops that can only expose that vulnerability. We hope our hero will come through, consoling ourselves in the meantime with a story well told.
Only two characters matter in Trick, a grandfather and grandchild. Artist Daniele Mallarico is in his 70s, like Starnone. Widowed and apparently friendless, recovering too slowly from painful surgery, he is asked to travel from Milan to his childhood home in Naples to look after grandson Mario while the boy’s parents are away at a conference. Telling his tale in the first person, Daniele knows he is not up to it. He rarely sees his daughter, dislikes her husband, scarcely knows the four-year-old Mario and has no desire to return to an apartment that can only remind him of his troubled adolescence. Worse, he is behind with an urgent commission to illustrate a book. His talent has deserted him. No sooner has he arrived in Naples than his editor is phoning to say the drawings he has sent so far are no good. He will have to do the work again, under pressure, while looking after the child.
The boy’s bickering parents, both professors, are sketched in only to be dismissed; he’s chubby, neurotic, pedantic, insanely jealous; she’s slim, overdressed, overworked, at her wits’ end. We are relieved to have the door closed behind them so as to focus on the coming calamity. What will it be – gas rings, sharp knives, electrical appliances, busy roads, belligerent neighbours, a windy balcony? Daniele sees danger everywhere. He exhausts himself with worrying. Mario is a splendid whirlwind of precocious middle-class competence, setting the table for dinner, pulling food out of the fridge, climbing on a chair to put the coffee pot on, handling the phone and his father’s heavy toolbox. Nothing daunts him.
The two complement each other beautifully. We learn more about the parents’ bourgeois values through the boy’s parroting of them – don’t swear, Granddad, don’t smoke, wash hands, keep the kitchen tidy – than through their earlier presence. And the old man rediscovers his rejection of those values; we feel his weariness, not just with the child’s manic, know-all vitality, but with all the paraphernalia of urban respectability. He just wants to work. The boy wants to play. He lowers toys in a bucket from that dangerous balcony, hoping to make contact with a boy in the flat below. Frequent reminders of the old man’s distracted state of mind and anaemic condition keep us on tenterhooks.
There is more. The story Daniele is illustrating is Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”, in which the author’s alter ego returns to New York after more than 30 years and has a terrifying encounter, in the house he grew up in, with the ghost of the showy, vulgar businessman he could have become had he not left the US for Europe. Daniele decides to improve his drawings by switching from James’s Yankee ghosts to the ghosts of his own earlier Neapolitan self lurking here in the apartment. These are the raw, energetic, violent personas that he suppressed to achieve a more controlled – but in the end emptier and meaner – artistic life. Turning to his past proves even more frightening than looking after the boy. As in James’s story, a lifetime’s vocation is called into question, with much panicky rumination on how we become who we are, what is genetic, what is willed, and so on.
In her introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri, who translates Trick, enthuses over this intertextuality. “Scholars and critics,” she says, “will be playing for years with this novel, teasing out its various layers, links, correspondences.” Certainly the American author, whose own fine stories frequently head from anxiety to calamity, has found a kindred soul in Starnone. “To translate is to walk down numerous scary corridors, to grope in the dark,” she tells us, perhaps deliberately anticipating a moment in the novel when the grandfather, unfamiliar with the positioning of the light switches in the apartment, nearly comes a cropper on his way to bed. Bar an occasional stumble, Lahiri leads us through Starnone’s narrative corridors in fluent prose with some resourcefulness. At least in this regard, the reader has nothing to fear.
But all the explicit discussion of James and ghosts, of genes and DNA, reflections resumed and repeated in a 20-page appendix that, together with Lahiri’s introduction, pads out this fine novella to novel length, will for many readers seem exactly the kind of energy-sapping intellectualisation that Daniele fears is ruining his drawings. The real meat of this story is an old man’s breakfasts and bath times with a wired-up four-year-old, his wrestling for the remote, desperately trying to find some space for himself and his work. Starnone, one of Italy’s most accomplished novelists, knows the territory and delivers it wonderfully. And whatever reservations we may have about the narrator’s cerebral distractions, they do at last allow little Mario to play a quite terrible trick on his granddad. All at once we have the novel’s title and our calamity. It doesn’t disappoint.